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Burn Out
by Ron Davis

A tenant of a Houston, TX, shopping center has escaped blame for a fire that started in his store and damaged the premises of several of his neighboring tenants.

A jury has decided that because of conflicting evidence as to the cause of the fire, neither the shopping center owners nor the tenants who suffered collateral damage can collect from the tenant whose store was the source of the fire.

That tenant operated a retail business, known as Market Antiques and Home Furnishings, at the shopping center. And the fire occurred one night during the Christmas season after the store was closed and the employees had left work for the evening. Because Market Antiques’ employees allowed the lights on three Christmas trees located in the store to burn 24 hours a day, the shopping center owner and the tenants whose premises were damaged by the fire sued the Market Antiques tenant, claiming that his negligence caused the fire.

But at trial, a jury heard disparate opinions from experts as to the actual source of the fire. Some blamed the tenant for putting too many lights on the trees and using lighted ornaments from two different manufacturers. Others blamed the fire on the ornament manufacturers. And still others blamed loose and defective light sockets. One expert even pinned the fire on a candle that fell and ignited a sofa in the Market Antiques store.

The jury apparently concluded that the Market Antiques tenant was not clearly at fault and decided in his favor. The shopping center owners and neighboring tenants appealed the jury verdict.

A Texas appellate court upheld the jury verdict, explaining, "It was the jury’s province, not ours, to judge the credibility of the evidence and resolve conflicts or inconsistencies. Here, 12 jurors unanimously found that the Market Antiques tenant did not cause the fire through negligence.... Under a factual sufficiency review, we may not substitute our judgment for that of the jury, even if the evidence would clearly support a different result." (Trans Amer. Holding v. Market Antiques, 39 S.W.3d 640 [Tex.App.--Houston 1st Dist. 2001])

Decision: March 2001 Published: May 2001



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